This 1960 ES-335 made its way into Gill’s collection after the sessions for his latest album, but has become a favorite and appears on the album’s cover.
“Take Me Down,” with Little Big Town, has a great sound on the acoustic guitar at the opening. It just pulls you in from the beginning.
I wrote that song with Richard Marx and a young lady named Jillian Jacqueline, and at first I just started playing that riff. It went to the F chord, with the Am chord over it, and we had our hook. It was interesting right off the bat, and that’s true of most really great records, to me. There’s something that a musician plays that completely defines what the song is, long before the singer starts singing. You know when it’s Jimmy Page playing the intro to “Stairway to Heaven,” or really any Led Zeppelin song. It’s mind-boggling how many records you can listen to, and you know within three notes where it’s going. I don’t think musicians get enough credit for that, and I have a pretty good reverence for it.
“Me and My Girl” is a great road trip song, with a great solo.
Yeah, that whole acoustic guitar part was where it came from. I just dropped the E string down a step, and then I started that little riff, and that’s where
the song came from. I think the solo was a Les Paul through a couple of little Champs, and I’m playing with just the meat of my fingers, like Mark Knopfler does. I’ve loved the way he’s played forever. It’s so different versus a pick, and that’s a sound I hadn’t tried before. That might be my favorite solo on the record. Very musical, and it was an inspiring one to come up with.
“Make You Feel Real Good” really jumps out. The slapback echo on your voice gives the song this great throwback, rock ’n’ roll, Sun Records kind of feel.
I’ve got a great partner in Justin, and he’s the reason all those things sound good. He’s doing that more than me—I’m just the idiot playing! But that was one of the most fun records I’ve ever made because of the way Steve and Willie played. Everything on there, it feels so authentic. I feel like I’m channeling Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters or some of those greats, and it’s funky enough—like I said, if you get that groove behind you, you better get in it, or you’re gonna get exposed. So that’s as deep a groove as I’ve ever gotten to play and sing over in a unique way. And it’s a pretty nasty song, honestly, but they all better be authentic. My dream is to see that song become a commercial for Cialis or Viagra [laughs], because it’s so funky and sleazy, you know?
But that was no-holds-barred on the vocal and guitar. For one of the lead guitar parts, I played a 5-string Telecaster like Keith Richards plays all the time, and capoed it up and played that part in the middle. It’s amazing how little parts like that find a way to help direct a record sometimes. Bekka Bramlett sings on that with me, too, and she’s one of the most high-octane voices that God ever put on this earth. She makes you better, she makes you funkier, she makes you all those things because of the way she sings. So that was a blast.
The mood you get across in “Sad One Comin’ On” almost made me think of George Jones’s “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.”
Oh, that’s cool. He was a great friend, and I’ve always found a place to go and write songs about people who mean a lot to me. My most well-known song is probably “Go Rest High on that Mountain”—I wrote that for my brother when he passed away, and then “The Key to Life” I wrote for my dad, and I wanted to do something for George. What I admire most about him—his voice and all that was a given, that was such a slam-dunk—but all the mistakes and things that he did that would have sabotaged anybody else’s career, but didn’t sabotage his, because he was honest about it. He didn’t try to hide it or make excuses. He just said, “Yeah, I did that.” I admired his honesty so much.
So we honor him with this song, and really it wasn’t hard to write. All I had to do was tell his truth—not so much anything about me. From my perspective, it’s me observing what I thought was his life. And then his wife Nancy, who comes up in that last verse—her loving him was life-changing for him, and put him in a pretty good place.
Gill plays his tribute to his late friend, “Sad One Comin’ On (A Song for George Jones),” alone—fitting for an homage to country music’s master of melancholy—on a Gibson J-45. Gill’s lyrics and high, heartfelt singing drive the tribute home.
When I listen to guys like George Jones, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Hank Williams—and I feel this in your music too—I’m connected to the soulful part of it.
You’re spot on, because I think that most people can’t perceive that a country artist can be a soul singer, too. We always have a tendency to think soul singing is black music, and soul singing is Ray Charles and Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. There’s soul in every kind of music, if you go and look for it. If you listen to Joe Walsh play guitar, he’s one of the most soulful rock ’n’ roll guitar players you’ll ever hear in your life. George Jones was as soulful as Ray Charles—the music was way different, but man alive.
It’s the sound that those voices make. That’s what makes them soulful. But do yourself a favor and go listen to some really early George Jones from the late ’50s. That early stuff as about as good as it ever gets. You hear a lot more fire and a lot more youth in him, and by the time you get to “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” he sounds like an old troubador.
How about the title of this album? There must be a story behind Down to My Last Bad Habit.
A friend said it to me at breakfast one morning. I just waltzed over to his table, and he was sitting there with another friend of mine, and we started visiting, and I said, “You doing alright?” And he said, “Well, I’m about down to my last bad habit.” And I said, “That’s awesome—can I use that in a song?” It sounds very funny, but the way I used it in the song, in a nutshell the guy quit everything she left him for, and he found himself down to his last bad habit, which was her. So a turn of a phrase turned into a pretty cool song. I’m always looking for little things like that.
Did you take the same approach to choosing which acoustic guitars to play on the album as you did with the electric guitars?
Absolutely. Sometimes when I play something on acoustic, it might really dictate where we’re going with the song. It might even dictate the feel to some degree. And it’s just that combination of guys playing music together. It’s like, “So where does this sit back? Is it too fast? Is it too slow?” Everybody makes room for everybody, and that’s what I love about watching these people take a song and turn it into something valuable.
I feel the same about which guitar I’m gonna grab. Some people want the biggest and the loudest and the widest, but sometimes you only want to take up a small sonic space, so maybe you play an archtop for rhythm, rather than a big dreadnought. That’s what a lot of experience in the studio will help you figure out.